Stage 256

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If you grew up in the 80's, you lived the dream. Those of you who know what I'm talking about will probably smile and remember the good old days when you tore the reindeer-themed wrapping paper on Christmas morning to discover a Nintendo Entertainment System. You'll remember going to the toy store and seeing physical representations of Masters of the Universe or the Transformers, watching Saturday morning cartoons till your parents told you to stop because your eyes would fall out of your head.

My favorite game was Pac-Man, and I remember going to Art's Arcade when it first opened in my hometown in 1981. So many machines, sucking away our quarters, but the one that stood out to me the most was Pac-Man. Hard as hell for six-year-old me since I didn't really know what I was doing, but I played that game a lot. I got really good, and my high score was 1,776,250 points. Is. I got that score in spring of '89.

More like late winter. There was still snow on the ground, it was April. There was still snow on the ground because I lived in small-town Minnesota. I remember wanting to move away to Texas as fast as I could, freeze-hole as it was. The lows every night from December to early February were at least sub ten. Sure, it wasn't as bad as what our friendly Northern neighbors get, but I lived there till I was seventeen. I think I'm entitled to something, a medal of honor, perhaps? Yeah.

So yeah, this is the 80's. Despite the ass-freezing cold, you're living the dream, playing arcade games, watching cartoons, not caring about school, hanging out with friends watching movies you probably shouldn't. I was doing all that and more.

Let's fast forward twenty-five years.

Edward Hopkins slammed his fist into the filing cabinet. Slamming it always did the trick, or at least that was his inherent masculine reaction. He didn't think about it and struggled, trying to pull it every which way —

It flew back and several sheets spilled out. Edward stooped down, picked them up, and noticed Halley enter the room, wearing her suggestive dress-code-breaking skirt. For a second stereotypical office sounds could be heard, and were silenced when the woman shut the door. Would she? He glanced at her, then started searching through the files. No, she wouldn't. Out of my league.

Halley walked past him to another filing cabinet and unlocked the bottom drawer, bending over to do so. Just can't help yourself, Eddie, can you? He scanned up and down her legs, tan and perfectly curved, then got back to what he was doing. Edward flipped through the ungodly amount of folders until he found what he was looking for: a police report from April 1989. He knew what it was, and his hands trembled as the memories resurfaced.

After locking the filing cabinet, Edward tucked the report under his arm and left the storage room. The office sounds returned: phones ringing, talking, typing, writing…incessant noises Edward couldn't stand. He caught the stare of a wide-eyed woman and quickly looked away. Stacy, that witch, if she looks at me again…

The noises faded as Edward walked into the administrative hallway, seeing Cutter in his office. He opened the door and set the report on Cutter's desk, hiding his shaking hands.

Commissioner Cutter sat next to the window, looking at the street five floors down. Jam-packed with cars and trucks on every block, it seemed, and a river of pedestrian traffic flowing up and down the sidewalks. Wispy smoke trails puffed from his nose and the corners of his mouth. Edward cleared his throat.

Cutter turned to him and stabbed an ashtray with his cigarette.

"You know why I smoke, son?" he asked.

"No," was all Edward could muster.

"Because of reports like the one you just set on my desk." He snatched it and flipped open the folder, revealing a half-inch thick pile of documents. "Gruesome murder of two young girls, twenty-five years ago. The only reason we knew it was murder and not a disappearance was because we found a mass of flesh in the middle of the woods that just so happened to be human. Have you read the report, son?"

"No." He hesitated, and it was again all he could muster.

"Get reading then, Mr. Hopkins. I just received a report from Inspector Miles and Sergeant Tyler that they found a mass of human flesh in those same woods fifteen minutes ago."

Afterwards I gave up my addictions.

I didn't have many friends in middle school, but the ones I did have, my inner circle, my squad, comprised me and three of the best friends I ever had. Samantha Wright and her sister Michelle, and Peter Mills. We would have been the unlikely heroes if there was ever an adventure movie made about a group of kids who stumble upon some fascinating gadget or a door to another land. We were that tight-knit group, all right. '89 was seventh grade.

But we didn't stumble upon something; something stumbled upon us, and it wasn't good. It was anything but good. That's why there was no movie made about us, I guess.

I didn't have multiple addictions, I wasn't that kind of kid. I smoked sometimes, and it was like fire in my throat the first couple times I did it. Somehow it was still the "cool" thing to do, like in those Pepsi posters from the 60's where the hot blonde holds a pop in one hand and a cigarette in the other, smiling at you with gleaming white teeth.

We went to the arcade on April second, after our parents put us to bed. We all agreed to sneak out and play for a few hours. Unsurprisingly, it was Peter's idea, since he was the one plotting out our ventures all the time. The arcade was two miles from my house, so I biked there and arrived first. The others lived further in the country.

The three of them arrived almost at the same time, and we went into the arcade with our quarters jingling in our pockets, eager to play. There were two people left, playing some game in the corner. Galaxar, I think. Or Gaplus. Something like that.

I remember having the most fun that night. "Played until our fingers bled." Bryan Adams wasn't wrong about that one. Eventually, though, I was stuck at the Pac-Man machine, grinding away, getting farther than I had before, beating my previous scores. One hundred thousand. Two hundred thousand. Five hundred thousand. One million. I kept going, I couldn't stop. I told myself this was my one chance to get a perfect game. At this point my friends were standing next to me slouched over, groaning at me to stop so we could go home.

If Sam hadn't jerked the joystick, I probably would've made it. I just couldn't stop myself. Seeing that yellow blob munching away, the numbers climbing … It was better than pop or candy or ice cream. I felt like Pac-Man: an unstoppable force constantly eating.

I said I wasn't that kind of kid, but inside I was. When I came to the arcade, I gobbled down entertainment happily, without questioning it. Yeah, we were living the dream, but screw that, man. I was so selfish.

We left the arcade after my game ended, and Peter and the girls shot down the street. The frustration I had from losing had passed, and I waved my friends goodbye. The crescent moon was a sliver in the sky that night. I remember looking up at it as I biked the opposite way back to my house, intrigued by it.

The road dragged on and on, miles and miles it felt like, going absolutely nowhere. Geography wasn't my strong suit, but I knew from biking on this road that it curved to the right, and then there was a four-way stop where you'd turn left on Gray towards the suburbs. Lucky for me, my legs were going to get a real good workout that night.

There was no stop sign, or a curve. It just continued straight, past never-ending rows of empty fields, and the moon was a sideways smile hanging above me. The only sound was the buzz of the bike tires on the asphalt and my ragged breathing, cold air burning my lungs.


It sounded like wet tree branches snapping. I looked behind me and saw a giant black mass on the road, two hundred feet down. I only looked back for a split-second, and it shouldn't have taken so long for my brain to register that I needed to start pedaling faster. It was like a black hole, invisible only until you got close enough you would see your legs being sucked in.


The thing behind me moved closer, and the sound was clearer. Rhythmic. I looked back again, longer this time, and felt a shock of panic shoot through my body, almost electrical, as I witnessed the terrible reality of what was making that awful sound.

It was a perfect sphere, and the snapping sound came from a gaping hole filled with jagged red teeth, chomping and grinding. A dog-like whimper came out of my throat and I pedaled faster than I ever had. Tears streamed from my eyes, slicing like icicles in the cold. The monster didn't stop, and neither did I. This wouldn't be the end for me, I repeated in my head over and over. I wasn't going to be eaten by Pac-Man.

At Mach 5 I careened around the curve in the road, tore through the stop-sign, and finally got to my house. Crying my eyes out, I threw my bike in the yard and dove through my bedroom window. I slammed it shut and hid under my blankets wide awake for the rest of the night.

The next morning I "woke up" dead tired with grocery bags under my eyes. I didn't talk that morning, and my mom said something about not staying up late. Which was probably true. I probably shouldn't have gone out last night.

At eleven, Dad had the local news on. The reporter said that Samantha and Michelle Wright were missing.


They found another one. Another pile of remains. I saw it on the news yesterday. If you find out anything important, just tell me. They were my best friends too, remember?


Edward deleted the email and continued walking through the forest. Leaves crunched beneath his boots and rays of sunlight shot down through the gaps in the canopy. He stepped over fallen branches, pushing his way east. He remembered the path, not by the trees or landmarks, but by the contour of the land.

The crime scene was in the valley, next to Blue Creek. Yellow tape wrapped around rocks and poles in the clearing, and several officers were searching the scene. Edward passed through the tape and stopped in his tracks when he saw the mass on the ground.

It was a sphere of human flesh, six inches in diameter, coated in a layer of white fluid. Edward remembered the interviews, the news reports, and the accusations. He remembered coming here months after, years after, wondering why it all happened, but it wasn't relevant anymore.

Now I'm part of the investigation.

I've come full circle. This is the reset.

"But I'm not playing the game anymore," Edward said, and he knelt in the mud next to the sphere.

He closed his eyes and began stuffing it into his mouth.

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